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The Story of France by  Mary Macgregor




[225] LOUIS the Dauphin had joined the nobles when they rebelled against his father Charles VII.; then, fearing to trust to his father's promises of forgiveness, he had fled to the Duke of Burgundy. He was still an exile from home when he heard that the king was dead. The news brought the dauphin no regret.

He hastily left Flanders, and returned to Paris to attend his father's funeral. In the afternoon of the same day he was out hunting, as gay as any of his companions. To hunt he wore a royal dress of purple, for the French fashion was to wear black only at the funeral service.

But if Louis did not mourn for his father, most of the nobles were sorry to lose their king. During the last years of his life he had ruled wisely, while Louis, they foresaw was a headstrong prince, bent on making himself more powerful than any of his barons.

Count Dunois, as he turned away from the funeral of Charles VII., murmured the thought that was in the minds of many another noble, "We have lost our master; let each look after himself."

On August 18, 1461, Louis went to Rheims. accompanied by the Duke of Burgundy, who had come to France with the prince to be present at his coronation.

Philip the Duke, seated on a splendid charger, surrounded by his Burgundian archers, was a right royal figure at which to gaze.

[226] And the French turned from him with a dull regret to look at their own future king.

Louis XI., a little man, shabbily dressed even on the occasion of his coronation, with cunning eyes and a cruel mouth, which yet at times wore a winning smile, hardly seemed to be a king at all.

Yet the shabby dress, the undignified manners in which he delighted, were but disguises to hide the clever brain which was already busy with many great schemes.

The Duke of Burgundy should scarcely have been asked to the coronation at Rheims, so greatly did he dwarf Louis XI. in his dull grey cape, his face half hidden under a hat, which a chronicler of the time calls a "bad hat," and which was stuck full of little leaden images of the saints. For Louis XI. was, in his own way, a very devout king.

So the people stared first at the duke and then at Louis, and after that they muttered one to the other, "Ah, he is not like our king who wears an old grey coat, and hides his face under his hat, and hates nothing but joy."

When this unkingly-looking king had reigned for some years, his courtiers gave him a strange nickname. The "Universal Spider," they called him, because, like a spider, Louis sat quietly in his palace spinning and spinning his plots, until his web entangled all those whom he wished to get into his power. And he spun so quietly, so persistently, that there were few indeed who could escape from the meshes of his web.

Louis began his reign, as the Count of Dunois had foreseen, by dismissing his father's most trusted counsellors. In their places he put Balue, a priest of humble birth, who became a cardinal, his barber Olivier, and Tristan l'Hermite, the hangman.

That the king should give titles to such men, and listen to their advice, made the nobles angry. But their indignation was still more fierce when Louis began to interfere with their pleasures. He forbade them to hunt, even in their [227] own forests, or to keep hounds, hawking birds, nets or snares, which might be used for hunting.

Louis himself was passionately fond of the chase, and he issued this selfish order that the forests might be free for his own royal pleasure. By such deeds Louis XI. made himself bitterly disliked by the barons of his realm.

The middle class, too, learned to distrust and hate their king. At first, it is true, they were charmed, for Louis knew well how to flatter and please.

When the townsfolk, finding themselves taxed more heavily than they thought just, sent deputations to complain to the king, Louis graciously thanked them for telling him their troubles, and promised to reduce the taxes, to restore their ancient liberties.

To the deputation from Rheims the king said, "I have just been passing five years in the countries of my uncle of Burgundy, and there I saw good cities, mighty rich, and full of inhabitants; and folks, well clad, well housed, well off lacking nothing; the commerce there is great, and the cities there have great privileges. When I came into my own kingdom I saw, on the contrary, houses in ruins, fields without tillage, men and women in rags. faces pinched and pale It is a great pity," said Louis the king; "my soul is filled with pity at it. All my desire is to apply a remedy thereto. and with God's help we will bring it to pass."

Never were words more fair and gracious. The deputation went home well pleased with their plainly dressed but eloquent king.

But when the time came to collect the taxes at Rheims the king had apparently forgotten his gracious promises. Officers came as usual to collect the same heavy taxes whereupon the people were angry and refused to pay.

When Louis heard that the people of Rheims had refused to pay the taxes he ordered a large number of his soldiers to dress themselves as labourers and artisans' and thus disguised to slip unnoticed into Rheims

[228] When the soldiers were safely inside the city, they threw off their disguise, and took possession of the town before the citizens had time even to seize their arms.

The ringleaders, who had encouraged the people not to pay their taxes, were slain, and about a hundred of the inhabitants were hanged. Not only Rheims, but many other places were treated in the same way.

After Louis had reigned for about three years, the nobles formed a league to overthrow the monarch's unjust rule. This league was called the "League of the Common Weal"; and Charles the Bold, son of the Duke of. Burgundy, was its real leader, although Charles of Berri, the king's heir, took part in it.

Louis, save for the regular army raised by his father, would now have been helpless, for the army of the League actually advanced upon Paris. He was at this time in the south, where he had gone to fight against some of the rebellious nobles.

Hearing that Paris was in danger, the king made terms with the southern nobles, and hastened toward his capital. But the army of the league stopped him near the village of Montlhery, in July 1465.

Here a fierce battle was fought. The royal army wavered, hearing that the king had fallen. But Louis took off his helmet, crying, "No, my friends, no; I am not dead; defend your king with good courage!"

Hearing his voice the soldiers rallied and fought with new courage, but night fell while the victory was still uncertain.

Louis ordered large fires to be lit in the village of Montlhéry, behind which he encamped with his army.

Charles the Bold, with a mere handful of men, rested outside the village, sheltered by a thick hedge.

As the night wore on, Charles sent out scouts to find where the king had encamped. The scouts saw the fires blazing in the village, and believing that the royal army [229] was behind the fires, they hastened back to say the king was there.

So Charles drew up his men in battle array lest the enemy should surprise them. But morning dawned and no attack had been made, for while the watch-fires blazed Louis and his army had slipped quietly away, and two days later the king was in Paris. But when the city was afterwards besieged, the king begged the nobles to come to terms.

So in October 1465 the leaders of the Common Weal signed the Peace of Conflans. The king was forced to grant them both lands and positions of trust in the kingdom, and having gained what they wished for themselves, the nobles laid down their arms, paying no further heed to the needs of the people, or the Common Weal.

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